The #ChurchToo movement, which started as a offshoot of Me Too, has become a powerful force in its own right ― toppling prominent pastors, sweeping out church leaders who failed to believe victims, and forcing Christian denominations to re-evaluate how they treat allegations of sexual abuse.
As churches struggle to find footing in this new era of reckoning, some Christians are wondering: Is there something about the way faith communities are set up that make them especially susceptible to mishandling abuse allegations?
Rachael Denhollander, an abuse survivor and activist, certainly thinks so.
Denhollander was the first woman to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. Since Nassar’s conviction, the Kentucky lawyer has emerged as a prominent advocate for abuse survivors. And as an evangelical Christian, Denhollander has also turned a critical eye on how sexual abuse allegations are handled within evangelical church communities.
Denhollander opened up about her thoughts on sexual abuse and evangelical churches during a talk at the W83 Ministry Center in New York City on Wednesday.
“Unfortunately, faith communities can be breeding grounds for abusers,” she said, in part because of imbalances in authority structures that can exist in these spaces.
Power imbalances can take root in athletic organizations when coaches are given ultimate authority over athletes, she said. But this can also happen in sacred institutions, when the leader attains the status of a celebrity preacher and becomes “untouchable.” This status helps insulate the abusive person from criticism.
Churches are also spaces where congregants can develop a strong emotional attachment to the person who is an abuser.
“Abusers look for communities they can ingratiate themselves into, they look for dynamics to make people emotionally attached to them because that is their greatest safeguard,” Denhollander said. “That keeps victims silent and keeps abusers in power.”
Over the years, she said, she’s realized that examining how church leaders handle the idea of authority can give people in the pews a sense of whether the church is heading in the right direction.
“What accountability is in place for the pastoral authority structures? How do you bring concerns to them? What is their response to abusers?” Denhollander said, listing out just some of the questions she considers when looking for signs of a healthy church environment.
She said a key mistake church leaders make is thinking that they can independently handle all of the fallout from a sexual abuse allegation ― the counseling, the investigation, etc.
“This is often due to an imbalance in authority where pastors take for themselves more authority than they are given by God and in Scripture,” Denhollander said.
One of the greatest hallmarks of a healthy church is elders and pastors who have a “learner’s heart,” the advocate said. Church leaders should be willing to listen to victims, recognize their own limitations ― and then go out and learn about the dynamics of sexual abuse from experts.
Even though religious communities aren’t perfect, Denhollander said her faith has actually given her a lot of hope. One of the beautiful things about her faith, she said, is that Christians believe God grieves with them over the evil that exists in the world. That knowledge offers insight into how to respond when a church member, friend or another survivor comes forward with a story of abuse.
Instead of trying to protect the church, Denhollander said, Christians should “say the same things about evil that [God] says about evil.”
“Our priority is not to protect Jesus ― he doesn’t need our protection,” Denhollander said. “Our commitment is to what is right, to the gospel, to the truth of Christianity, to the truth of the Scripture. We best protect that by being faithful, to do what we’re called to do, which is to speak the truth.”